The Habit Of Art / Cock
Various venues
November, 2009

Perhaps the climate of grumpiness has seeped into my bones, but on the subject of The Habit Of Art I feel that most reviewers have been rather too indulgent of Alan Bennett and his play. Readers with good memories may recall that when Bennett’s last play The History Boys opened at the National in 2004, I pointed out how big a muddle it was in terms of chronology and the architecture of the world of the play, so to speak; however, I argued that this did not in fact prove crippling to either the play’s argument or its spirit.  On this occasion, though, I fear that a similar mess does fatally damage Bennett’s entire dramatic project.  Lloyd Evans presents his theory in his Spectator review, perhaps unaware that Bennett had admitted precisely that some weeks earlier in the London Review of Books –

He had originally set out to write a play entitled Caliban’s Day about an imaginary late reunion between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten but, finding the material dramatically intractable, decided to frame it as the play-within-a-play, being run through in a rehearsal room: this is the final form of The Habit Of Art.  And I’m afraid that, to me at least, not only the blatancy of the device but also the desperation which motivated it are conspicuous.  There are a number of moments at which the discussion of art and its relationship with life clunks horribly in Caliban’s Day; Bennett, unable to digest these matters theatrically, instead deploys one of the conjuror’s tricks, misdirection, by writing some deliberately atrocious segments; having permission to wince and laugh at these, we forget our discomfort with the way the actual dramatic meat is cut and cooked.  Or so runs the theory.  Well, it didn’t work with me.  I find The Habit Of Art not a work of delicious and playful complexity, but rather a candid admission of inability to shape the intended material and of dramatic hopelessness.


I have further reason for complaint regarding Mike Bartlett’s Cock.  (The Royal Court cannot help but know that it has licensed several weeks of such schoolboy remarks, although Lloyd Evans is mistaken in his assumption that the title causes embarrassment amongst customers which harms sales; the entire run sold out with extreme swiftness.)  I adore Miriam Buether as a designer, but in this case she had remade not just the playing area but the auditorium and seating, and done so in a way that took me so far beyond discomfort that, after nearly an hour and a half in a cramped, un-ergonomic position, my back and sciatic pain had increased to the point where I nearly passed out.  This is not an exaggeration.  When the play was over, I had to wait a couple of minutes until I was sure that my legs were steady enough to take me down the few steps to the door of the Upstairs space.  No doubt I’m in a small minority, but I think still a statistically significant one.

As for the play itself… well, let me dispel the clouds of curmudgeonliness.  I have often twitted Quentin Letts in these pages, but all credit to him for being the only reviewer to mention one of the salient points about the concept of the play’s staging.  Buether’s set is, he notes, “like an old-fashioned cockfighting pit.”  Immediately the picture becomes clear.  There’s so much more to the title than puerile penile punning.  The players circle each other in the arena as fighting cocks do before engaging; they never make serious contact because it would be impossible to present, not just the acts described, but the savagery of the conflict underlying them all.  The chimes which so puzzle Paul Callan are signalling not new scenes, but new rounds or bouts.  It’s all about confrontation.  It would probably be reading too much into things, though, to note that Ben Whishaw’s character, as the only one with an actual name, is the only one who demonstrates the human desire to avoid such conflict (or, conversely, the human ability to dither).  Points, too, to Henry Hitchings for noting the similarity between Andrew Scott’s performance and the onstage manner of comedian Dylan Moran.


A remark by Max Stafford-Clark in a meeting with the Critics’ Circle, which shows a combination of self-awareness, poignancy and wryness so characteristic of both Max and his directorial work: discussing the various ways in which he has and hasn’t recovered from his stroke of 2006, he observed, “If you see a couple of characters static downstage right for 20 minutes, it’s because I lost them with my left-side peripheral vision.”

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2009

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage